It’s using Pavlovian tricks in a new way: to get alcoholics to ignore the potent cues that trigger their craving. Brilliant stuff, covered in the MIT Technology Review:
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Just as these responses can be conditioned, they can also be de-conditioned, reasons Cox. His computer program helps abusers deal with the sight of alcohol, since it’s often the first cue they experience in daily life. The program presents a series of pictures, beginning with an alcohol bottle inside a thick, colored frame. As fast as they can, users must identify the color of the frame. As users get faster, the test gets harder: the frame around the bottles becomes thinner. Finally, an alcohol bottle appears next to a soda bottle, both inside colored frames. Users must identify the color of the circle around the soda. The tasks teach users to “ignore the alcohol bottle” in increasingly difficult situations, says Cox.
Such tests have long been used to study attention phenomena in alcohol abusers, but they have never been used for therapy, says Cox. His group adapted the test for this new purpose by adding elements of traditional therapy. Before the tests, users set goals on how quickly they want to react; a counselor makes sure the goals are achievable. After each session, users see how well they did. The positive feedback boosts users’ motivation and mood, Cox says.